EDMONTON, ALBERTA - Almost one year ago, Josh Harding stood in the middle of a quiet, empty locker room.
The Wild goaltender couldn't hide his devastation. Harding was leaning on crutches, and his blank eyes welled moments after being told he tore two ligaments in his right knee.
Only 24 hours earlier, Harding talked excitedly about his exhibition debut in St. Louis -- a game that was supposed to mark a new beginning after hip surgery late in the 2009-10 season.
Then, just like that, Harding felt as if the ice melted under him.
"Like my body was falling apart," said Harding, 27. "I didn't know what my future would be. There have definitely been some days along the way where I thought maybe that was my last game."
The roller coaster has been dizzying, especially after an emotionally draining offseason in which Harding lost his grandmother, Rosemarie, and close friends Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Pavol Demitra.
But after staying committed to rehab and gaining a perspective from a summer of sorrow, Harding will start the Wild's exhibition opener Tuesday against the Edmonton Oilers 362 days after feeling he had lost everything.
"The butterflies will be back. There will be rust. I'm not going to lie and say I'm feeling 100 percent comfortable. But the big thing is I'm back. It's taken a lot of hard work," Harding said.
"Some days you woke up and trying to just get out of bed killed me. When you go through rehab, days come to get old and coming to the rink sometimes, you don't even want to be there. Those are the days that challenge your character, and I had a lot of people who helped me along the way."
Harding credited the Wild's trainers and doctors, as well as former Wild forward James Sheppard, who accompanied Harding to rehab daily after breaking a kneecap. Harding thanked General Manager Chuck Fletcher, who showed faith by re-signing him when "who knows if another team would have taken the gamble."
But Harding especially is grateful to his father, Tim, who put his own life on hold to move to Minnesota for two months last year.
"He came and stayed with me after he quickly realized I couldn't really carry a glass of water to the couch. He was perfect," Harding said of his dad. "Now I'm back. I'm staying on top of it, getting into a routine by coming to the rink early and hot-tubbing it and stretching and getting rubbed out. Now I just want to get better and help push Backy [Niklas Backstrom]."
A year ago, Harding felt like the unluckiest person in the world. But when he steps onto the Rexall Place ice Tuesday night, scrapes up his crease and stands during each country's national anthem, he says he'll realize what he has again.
"I had a really rough summer," Harding said, referring to his grandmother and three friends dying. "I never had to deal with anything even close to this.
"Boogs hit me hard. It happened a couple days after my grandmother. Just both being from Regina, growing up with him, seeing him everywhere, growing up with the Wild together, seeing from where he started to where he finished, it's just unbelievable. And Ryp, we played together for three years [with the Regina Pats]. He was always a great guy and unbelievable friend. And then Pav, it's like, 'When it rains, it pours.'"
Harding wiped tears from his eyes.
"Bad summer. Bad summer," said Harding, who pays tribute to his grandmother and three friends on his new mask. "Even going through my injury, you realize actually how lucky you have it.
"You get to come to the rink every day, see friends, you get treated great, you're playing a sport that you love. Same with family and friends, sometimes you take for granted that you think they'll always be there. This summer definitely made me say, 'I love you,' to a lot more people a lot more often.
"I don't take for granted what I have now."